Category Archives: Border crossings

Going out with a bang (pt 2)- Livingstone and Zimbabwean Vic Falls

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Victoria Falls Lunar Rainbow- one of the most spectacular sights I’ve ever seen.

6th April: So our plan of having a lie in didn’t quite work out. Our body clocks still thought they were on safari and we both woke up at 5.30am! But ah well it was a beautiful day and we enjoyed the sunshine in the morning before catching a taxi to the Zambian ‘Frontier’ so we could walk over Victoria Falls Bridge into Zimbabwe- our 12th and final country of the trip. We got our exit stamp from Zambia and then made the rather soggy walk through no mans land, over Vic Falls bridge which spans the valley carved out by the Zambezi River, and onto the Zimbabwe immigration post. It’s a good 20 minutes walk from Zambian immigration to Zimbabwean immigration and you do get wet, but it’s definitely better to walk than to get a taxi as the view from the bridge of the Falls is fantastic. This waterfall truly is massive! 1700 metre wide and from the bridge you can see it all. Top tip though- don’t wear flip-flops. The ground is wet from the spray so I was flicking mud up the back of my legs the whole way- gross! At the Zim border we got our passports stamped and paid the $55 for our visas. A bit steep but I imagine GB makes it just as expensive for Zimbabweans to travel into the UK. It was then just a quick 2 minutes walk to the Vic Falls Park entry so we could check out all the viewpoints of the falls from the Zim side. We were worried we were going to lose money as we didn’t have the exact dollars for the entry ($30 each). But we needn’t have flustered, Zimbabwe has officially abandoned their own currency and now use US dollars, ever since Mugabe devalued the Zim dollar and ruined the economy….just another achievement to add to his list then! In the park and legs washed clean of mud, we browsed all the info boards and then set off on the 3km walk around the park to all its viewpoints. There have been 8 previous sites of the waterfall created as the Zambezi river has worked itself back upstream from fault line to fault line. The next line of the fault will originate from the area around the part of the falls called the Devils Cataract but will take another 10,000 years for the collapse. At 107 metres high, 1,737 metres wide, and pouring 1,100 m3/sec, Victoria Falls is the largest waterfall in the world. And yet again we were blown away by its magnitude and majesty as we wandered around the park, and of course getting absolutely drenched in the process! When we got to the viewpoint for Livingstone Island we were shocked at how close Zambia and Zimbabwe were at this point, plus we got a great view of the rock pool we swam in…it looked much scarier from this perspective face onto the falls; we swam so close to the edge! Absolutely saturated we came to the last viewpoint at Victoria Falls Bridge and saw many rainbows form and dissolve in the mist underneath it. Beautiful. We took the dry route back and the opportunity to dry off on our way to the park entrance. In the end I went to the bathroom and I took off my top and skirt to wring the water out before popping them back on and standing in the sun. Needed to at least look semi decent for where we were heading next, to visit the historically colonial Victoria Falls Hotel. We took a shortcut through the bush to the garden entrance of the hotel. The view from the hotel gardens is pretty impressive- the churning Zambezi cutting through the valley, the industrial elegance of the Vic Falls Bridge and the spray from the main falls continuously pushing up into the sky in the background. And then you turn around and see an equally impressive sight, which is the Vic Falls Hotel. A pillared sun terrace, white wash walls and terracotta tiles. We made our way, still slightly damp, to the Stanley Terrace and order a High Tea for Two (available each day from 3pm; $30). To share, we got a 3 tier display: 1 layer of sandwiches, 1 layer of plain and sultana scones with jam and cream, and 1 layer of dessert cakes; plus copious amounts of tea! It was delicious and we ate it all- we were stuffed! We enjoyed a delightful 2 hours eating, drinking and watching the rainbow in the mist travel from east to west under the bridge. It was a fabulous afternoon. After a mouche around the hotel we ventured into Victoria Falls Village. Not much was open on account of it being Good Friday, but we caught the end of the arts and craft market and Hedd bought the lowest and highest denomination of the obsolete Zimbabwe dollar- a $5 and a $100 trillion-dollar note! We walked back over the bridge and into Zambia again and thanked the lord for our good fortune. There was not a cloud in the sky and the Full Moon was really bright already; it was looking good for us seeing the lunar rainbow. We paid our entry into the Zambian side of Vic Falls Park and headed for the Eastern Cataract which is the best viewpoint to see the ‘Moonbow’- a rainbow produced from the light of the moon instead of the sun. We got there at 6.30pm and it wasn’t too busy but by 7pm the viewpoint was packed. We’d got a good spot and we waited for the sun to set and the light from the moon to do its magic. Suddenly we saw something try to form in the bottom left of the mist and soon a big arch of a rainbow formed. It was incredible. Sometimes the moonbow just appears grey, but the moon was drenching the mist in so much light we saw bands of red, blue and yellow. It was truly astonishing and I was so so pleased I’d been so anal about dates 1 year ago when we were planning the trip so we’d be in Livingstone for full moon. I was so so chuft to have seen it and it was a moment where I had a chance to reflect on just how lucky Hedd and I were to have been doing what we have been doing for the last 6 months. An amazing day.

Easter Saturday and another jammed packed day of activities. First up an Elephant backed safari! A rep from Zambezi Elephant Trails pick us up from the hotel at drove us 10 clicks out-of-town along the Botswana road to Thorntree Lodge within the Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park. On arrival the Head guide explained the background to the Elephant trails. The 6 adult elephants were all rescue elephants from the 1960’s-80’s when there was a massive culling exercise in the Zambezi Valley and a drought in the Gonarezha National Park. There are 3 little ones too- One, the daughter of the matriarchal female who went ‘bush’ and came back pregnant 10 months later; one the daughter of Liwa who after seeing Mashumbi getting pregnant, wanted one for herself so went off with the older male called Bop! And then little Sekuti who got brought home by the herd after they went grazing on a nearby island; no wild herds had been in the area for months so it seemed the little 6 month old had been on her own for some time. So all in all this herd’s history sounded like something off EastEnders! The guide also explained how they trained the elephants using positive reinforcement (i.e. treats and rewards) as opposed to the controversial ‘discipline and submission’ technique commonly associated with Asian Elephants. After all that (oh and signing our life away on an indemnity form no. 250!) we got introduced to the elephants. They are MASSIVE! And we couldn’t quite believe we were about to ride one. We mounted the elephant using a raised platform and we were on Mashumbi, the Matriarch and leader of the pack so we were out in front. All the elephants had someone on them apart from Sekuti who just came along for the ride, frolicking around the herd. We looked like a proper cool elephant family! The 1 hour trail led us through riverine bush and along the banks of the Zambezi. It wasn’t so much of a safari but we did see Impala. It was such a great experience being so close to an elephant. They are a lot hairier than I thought and the very tips of their ears are truly paper-thin, soft and smooth with lots of veins running through; much like a back of a leaf looks. Back at base it was time to feed Mashumbi her treats. You had to drop them in her trunk or throw them in her mouth, but I was completely rubbish at it. The trunk just freaked me out! It is such a funny yet incredibly alien thing with 2 massive nostrils! Anyway the whole 2 hours was really fun and elephants are lovely creatures. Back at the hostel and a budget beans on toast lunch, before getting picked up at 4pm for our booze cruise. We got picked up in a massive open air safari jeep which got stuffed with backpackers as they crawled around every hostel in town picking people up. It was so noisy and perhaps a flavour of what was to come! We got on our boat called Mukumbi from the stage outside The Waterfront Hotel and positioned ourselves by the bar (obviously!). $55 dollars, all you can drink with snacks and a hot buffet thrown in. Can’t complain about that! We soon got in the swing of things, with the bar man refilling our drinks without us even noticing at times! We were so engrossed in our various conversations with people that we almost missed sunset! But we caught it just in time, plus saw some game (elephants and hippo’s) too. It was really good fun and we continued the drinking back at the hostel with a load of trainee medics from America we’d met. My goodness can they drink!

8th April: another classic morning after the night before! Unsurprisingly we had a lazy morning, but were up and about by lunchtime to get ready to visit Lubasi Home Trust, the local home for parent-less and homeless children. It was set up by a guy from Sri Lanka who owned a few businesses in Livingstone and was shocked at how many children there were living rough on the street, either escaping from violent homes (due to the challenge of living in extreme poverty) or being orphaned (due to parents dying from HIV/AIDS). The area didn’t have any facilities to help these children so he stumped up the cash, bought the land and buildings at Lubasi from the government and set up a charitable trust to care for them. That was in 2001 and they have been going ever since, heavily reliant on the volunteer ‘mums’ who work there. Hedd and I were there to donate some of our clothes and shoes and just hang out with the kids for the afternoon. Hedd played football and I read to the girls. Each of the children were so different. The home is only meant to have kids aged 5-10 but there were children up to 18 there. And some were so quiet and withdrawn with others outlandish. The chap opposite in the pic was one of the outlandish ones who wore my sunglasses the whole time and enjoyed playing (almost breaking!) my camera. But he was happy so that was the main thing. I also had a stash of hair bands which I gave out to the girls. Whether they used them for the right purpose or as catapults I do not know! We stayed there for a good 2-3 hours then walked the 30 minutes back to town, having a strange interaction with a local who laughed and said “Before looking up I knew you (hedd) were a man and you (helen) were a woman, because you (man points to hedd) have so much hair on your legs….so much hair!” Hehe, very true random local man, very true!

9th April, and our last full day in Livingstone. Up and out early doors to catch one of the first flights of the day up in a microlight for a aerial view of the falls. I was so excited about this, which only grew as we waited our turn watching others take off and land. We were flying with Batoka Sky from their base at Maramba Aerodome just outside Livingstone town. Our 15 minute flight would take us along the Zambezi, figure of eight over the top of the falls and then back over the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, and I couldn’t wait! Hedd was up first and I close behind in another microlight. My pilot was called Keith, he was from Scotland and had been here a month and it was great because it felt like he was as excited as I was to go up and have a glide around. I had a helmet on with ear phones so I could hear what Keith was saying. Although I struggled, goodness knows how non-english speaking people fare, he was Scottish after all! The falls from above are amazing, breathtaking and we got a great view of the Batoka gorge too. Keith pointed out various fancy hotels, and I could tell him “I’ve been there, I’ve done that”. Hedd’s pilot went low over the falls edge and he got wet from the mist. My guy went low over the national park and I got to see an elephant. It was a really great way to round the whole Victoria Falls/Livingstone experience off; I really recommend it! That evening to mark our last night in Livingstone we went for sundowner drinks at the Royal Livingstone Hotel. We got there about 6.30pm and it was pretty busy but we managed to get a table right by the water on the sundeck. The sun dips directly in front of you and to your left is the drop of the falls. Hedd went up to order our cocktails and was told to sit down (all waiter service here!), which was lovely but it did mean we waited super long for our drinks. We did manage to get them just in time for sunset though which is the main thing. Although I kind of wished the sun would move about 100 meters left so you would see it dip behind the falls, the African sunset was still tremendously beautiful and a great way to end our Victoria Falls adventure.

10th April and time to say goodbye to Livingstone which had been our home for 10 days and we had grown to love it. An hour flight to Lusaka in an even smaller plane (2 seats wide and an aisle) and a taxi ride to our hostel in Fairview, and we’d arrived at our last accommodation of the trip- Kalulu Backpackers. Not the nicest of hostels and the bathrooms were a 3 minute walk outside in the garden which was a bit odd, but the staff were friendly and they had 2 cute bunny rabbits and a crazy dog to keep us amused! Our last day of the trip we spent do a slight exploration of Lusaka. It’s not the nicest city in the world but we did make it to Kabwata Cultural Village in the South East of the city to do last-minute present buying for our families. Hedd has 3 sisters and 1 brother so plenty of people to souvenir shop for! Our last supper was at Mahak Indian Restaurant on Great East Road which was lovely. It wasn’t too far from the hostel so we walked to it. Although walking back in the dark I was convinced someone would jump out from the drainage ditches which run alongside most of the roads and made Hedd walk in the middle of the street with me just in case! Completely unfounded fear but we had been so lucky throughout the whole trip with regards to safety and crime, I just didn’t want anything to happen on our last night! Needless to say we arrived back to the hostel safe and sound! Just time for one last African cider (Hunters Gold) at the hostel bar, before packing and hitting the hay.

12th April 2012 and time to fly back to Britain. To London Heathrow to be precise, and terminal 5 from where we had left 23 weeks before. I was ready to come home I think, and in reality we had to- funds had dried up! There will be time to reflect on best bits, low points and greatest moments in another post perhaps. But for now I thank you for reading this travelogue. The last 6 months have been incredible, and it has been a great pleasure to share the experience with you through this series of chronological posts which I suspect I will treasure forever.

Livingstone and Zimbabwean Vic Falls in a snapshot:

    • Weather= Hot, but a little chilly in the Vic Falls spray!
    • Food= Baked beans on toast, cereal and UHT milk (budget running very low!)
    • Drink= Just too much box wine!
    • A must see in your lifetime= A lunar rainbow, a ‘moonbow’ (you can catch one at Full Moon at Vic Falls or at Waimea in Hawaii)
    • One of the funnest thing to watch= the trunk of an elephant- literally has a mind of its own!
    • A kindred spirit= “I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up that I was not happy”- Ernest Hemingway
Hedd’s words of wisdom:

What a place to end our trip. Victoria Falls is amazing, it is massive. The biggest waterfall in the world and we are seeing it in high water. Well of course you can’t see all of it in high water because of the spray, but what you can do is feel the full force of it. We saw the falls from the Zambia side and the Zimbabwe side and we got absolutely drenched. It was like walking through a monsoon in parts, so much water, so much mist, it was exhilarating. We couldn’t see the full falls, at each viewpoint we could only see a small section, but each section was so impressive and there were so many sections. We saw rainbows everywhere in the day and of course we had the privilege of seeing a lunar rainbow at night, quite a sight!! The falls is also where we did the craziest thing we’ve ever done, which says a lot given Helen did the highest bungy in NZ and I jumped out of a plane at 15,000ft. We swam at the top of Victoria Falls. Insane – Yes. Amazing – Yes! There were no safety harnesses here, just our local guide who would act as some sort of goalkeeper should you go too close to the edge! If you ever get the chance to do this, do it! You won’t regret it – unless you’re the unlucky one that goes over the edge!!

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Going out with a bang (pt 1)- Zambia side Victoria Falls and Botswanna

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 Ahhh, good to be back!

My, my we had made it to Zambia. This was my must do country after we decided to come to Africa as it was where my parents lived for 9 years, where my brother was born and where I lived for the 1st year of my life. It is also where my parents met the Roberts and the McDonald family who remain a massive part of my life; representing second and third mum’s, dad’s and siblings. Big watershed moment for us too as this would be our final country before flying back to Britain, and my goodness were we going to make the most of it! After flying into Lusaka, and spending one night in the capital at Lusaka Backpackers, it was back on a plane for our internal flight down to Livingstone. The plane was tiny- 3 seats wide, but the pilot did us proud; super smooth and a great first view of Victoria Falls from the air on our final approach into Livingstone airport (top tip: sit on the left of the plane to get the best view). We were staying at Jollyboys Backpackers and a chap was there to pick us up from the airport and drive us the 6km into town. The backpackers was fab and we were staying in a little triangular hatched hut called ‘Hippo’ and everything inside had a hippo theme, it was great. Today was 1st April and we were flying back to Lusaka on the 10th- 10 days to fit as much as we could in, and have as much fun as our dwindling budget allowed. So first stop was to the tour desk to plan out our time and book our activities. Livingstone Island, Chobe Safari, Elephant Safari, Booze Cruise and Microlight….booked! We were going to have a great 10 days!

After a reasonable night sleep (although the pillows felt like they were stuffed with boulders!), it was time for our first activity- Breakfast on Livingstone Island. Now perhaps a potted history is required…as you all know Dr David Livingstone, the courageous Scotsman, in the 1800’s was, and still remains, the most pioneering missionary and explorer of Africa. His motto was ‘ Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation’ and he believed the key to achieving these goals was the navigation of the Zambezi River, and hence he spent a great deal of time around Victoria Falls. The town named after him and so to the tiny island on the edge of the falls we were about to visit. The island is the place where Dr David Livingstone first glimpsed Victoria Falls, or to use its traditional name: Mosi-oa-Tunya, ‘The Smoke That Thunders’. We were visiting in the wet season when the falls is at its fullest, so we were sure to get soaked and we wore our swimmers in preparation. In fact we were lucky to even be able to visit the island as the operators were closing it on 3rd April (the next day) due to the high water level- we breathed a sigh of relief at our timing! At 8.30am we got a taxi (35,000 kwacha) to the very fancy Royal Livingstone Hotel. My my it was luxurious and we made our way through its lovely garden and onto the sun deck overlooking the Zambezi River with the spray from the falls hurtling into the sky. We were joined by 2 other older couples from the US and Durban, signed our lives away on yet another indemnity form, and then boarded the jet boat that would take us to the little island in the middle and right on the edge of the falls. We didn’t really know what to expect as our guide led us through the trees and foliage to a little clearing by the edge of the island, and it was there that Hedd and I got our first up close view of the mighty Victoria Falls. It was amazing! The Smoke that Thunders really is a good description; just gallons and gallons of water thundering over and down the cliff edge and we were sooo close! We donned the rain coats the Tongabezi tour company provided and took a walk right along the edge of the island, getting progressively wetter from the spray and marvelling at the sheer power of the falls, how big they were and how close we were to the edge. And then the guide asked “who wants to swim?”. Hedd and I couldn’t believe it. We had been told we wouldn’t be allowed to swim at the top of the falls because of the water level. Completely apprehensive but not wanting to miss out on an opportunity of a life time, we stripped off to our swimmers and along with the couple from Durban, we all held hands and got guided the way into a rock pool right by the edge of the falls by our local guide with dreads. We made our way very slowly and carefully into the rock pool and on arrival literally screamed with delight at the fact that we were actually swimming at the edge of the falls! I thought the water would be freezing but it was in fact really nice and warm and the current in this little rock pool was not as strong as you think. Either way I was pleased our guide was acting as a goal’ie, blocking the natural exit from this rock pool i.e. over the falls edge! It was just amazing. And such a surprise and we were both delighted to have done it. We then slowly made our way back to the island and to the tented dining area to dry off and redress before breakfast. A great way to wake up! We got served copious amounts of tea, eggs Benedict and scones whilst listening to the thunderous falls. Goodness knows where the staff conjured up the food (the island was tiny!), but it was all piping hot and delicious. Absolutely stuffed and just so content, we headed back to the Royal Livingstone Hotel sun deck feeling like we’d done enough activities for the whole day but it was not even 11am! The 2 other couples on our tour were staying at the hotel and they invited us to join them for a drink on the garden terrace. All very posh and our luck continued as they shouted us drinks as we chatted and attempted to dry off in the sun- lovely generous people. After a quick unplanned zip back to our hostel after Hedd realised he’d lost the room key in the Zambezi (!), we then made our way to Zambian side of the Victoria Falls Heritage Park to explore all the various viewpoints. Paying our $20 entry we headed straight for the ‘Knife Edge Bridge’. We wrapped up all our camera’s and money belts in bags within bags in preparation for getting soaked. And my goodness did we get saturated! Walking across the bridge that fronts directly onto the face of Falls, it was like walking through torrential rain and the bridge was like a river. It was so fun and I screamed a lot! Walking to the rain forest view-point we didn’t really get a great view of the falls on account of the spray but we really got an impression of its power as the water tumbles down, throwing up the spray that was getting us so wet. Moving away from the falls face we headed for the furthest away viewpoint along the Photographic Trail which ended right by Victoria Falls bridge. Incredibly I was pretty much dry by the time we had walked there and back on account of the sunshine. All in all we spent 2 hours in the park and we both voiced that we were so pleased to be ending our trip here and seeing one of the 7 wonders of the world. Amazing. After a spot of browsing through the Vic Falls African Arts and Craft market (top tip: over-priced, cheaper to buy souvenirs at Mukuni Park market in town), we got a taxi back to the town. Our journey was interrupted by having to wait at a junction for a steam train to pass. Now I was under strict instructions from my Dad (a train fanatic!) to take photos of any trains I might happen to pass. So up and out of the taxi I went and absolutely legged it down the road to get a photo of this very expensive looking steam train. We were 10 cars back from the junction so everyone else in their taxi’s must have thought I was bonkers, randomly running towards a train, but I got some good piccies for Dad so it was worth it! A chilled out evening at our hostel to end our fantastic first full day in Livingstone.

3rd April and time for the start of our 3 day, 2 night safari in Chobe National Park in Botswana- country number 11 of our round the world trip. It was a 1 1/2 hour minibus transfer to the Botswana border. We were entering Botswana via the Kazungula ferry across the Chobe River. Its one of the shortest border crossings at just 750 m wide and from the little power boat that took us across we could see 4 countries- Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana. Pretty damn cool! We got our exit stamps on the Zambia side, crossed the river and got our entry stamps for Botswana. Sinka, our safari guide from Kalahari Tours, met us on the Botswana side and drove us to Kalahari’s base in Kasane Town in the open 4×4 van that we would be travelling in for the next 3 days. First up was a 2 hour river safari and we boarded the big boat, made from what looked like 2 canoes glued onto a platform with 2 power engines at the back, and remarkably still stayed afloat as we made our way down the Chobe River. As we sailed up the Botswana side and then down the Nambian side of the river we saw lots of animals, impala, crocodiles, buffalo. But best of all we saw a big family of elephants with a little baby elephant drinking from the river, plus a hippo basking in the sun smiling. Our driver and guide on the boat though I have to say were rubbish. They didn’t explain anything, just intermittently pointed and said the animals name. But we still enjoyed it. Back at base the tour company laid on a fab lunch before it was time to collect our rucksack and board our 4×4 with Sinka to head to Chobe National Park and properly start our safari. We entered the park via the Sedudu Gate on the Western side. Chobe is the second largest park in Botswana at 11,700 km sq and it is unfenced so not to impact on the animals natural migration patterns. We soon came across 1 of Chobe’s 150,000 African elephants. There are so many of them, Chobe are having to transport some of them to other countries who’s elephant populations are struggling to bring the population down to sustainable levels. From Sedudu we headed East towards our camp at Serendela and we saw loads of game along the way: elephants, impala, giraffe, kudu, buffalo, marshal eagles…Particularly amazing was when we found a pride of 7 lioness’ who were stalking a herd of elephants. We thought we were just about to witness a kill but instead something equally exciting. The matriarchal female elephant charged the lioness’ away, trumpeting and thundering her massive feet. It was like watching a Natural Planet episode in real life; amazing! Sinka never let us miss out on the small animals too. Amazingly he spotted a chameleon from the 4×4 and stopped alongside the tiny thing and we watched it turn from bright lime green to an evergreen colour as it walked into the bush- very cool. But the highlight for me was seeing a ‘Tower’ of 15 giraffes on the plain by the Chobe River as the sun was going down and we got the chance to see them gallop. Such an elegant movement for such a long limbed animal. Wonderful! We got into camp at 6.30pm and after getting introduced to our tents and long drop toilet, we got our camp briefing from Malachite our camp leader. Basic rules, this was an open camp. Animals can pass through at anytime but apparently they won’t because the little paraffin lamps he has dotted around will scare them off (?!?) and to make sure you shine your head torch around before stepping out of your tent if you need the loo in the night! Proper bush camping then! Mr Roy, another member of the Kalahari team, was our cook and we enjoyed a dinner of chicken curry followed by vanilla sponge and angel delight. They then brought the marshmallows out and had a girl guide moment browning marshmallows on sticks above the campfire. Entertainment was provided by Mr Roy telling jokes and Malachite dancing and singing African songs. It was great! Bed by 9.30pm as safari life starts early at 5.30am.

5.30am and a wake up call from Malachite gently drumming on our tent roof. A quick wet wipe wash, cornflakes breakfast with a cuppa and we were off on the 4×4 for a 4 hour morning game drive. We were on the hunt for a leopard who enjoy the cool of the morning, and after driving along the river for a bit we went deeper into the bush watching the trees to try to spot a leopard. We didn’t find one! But of note we did see a troop of baboons play fighting and jumping between the rooves of 2 rondavel huts. They absolutely were destroying the thatch but it was fun to watch. We also saw a herd of impala leaping along the road flicking their back legs up really high in the air as they went- very cool. But all in all the morning drive was a bit slow and everyone admitted (there were 10 of us in the 4×4) they took a little snooze at some point in the 4 hours! Plus I got poo’d on by a bird again (the same had happened in Peru)! But as one of the other girls said, Jasmin, it is good luck so I shouldn’t complain! We got back to camp at 10.30am and Mr Roy cooked us brunch of bacon, sausage, scrabbled egg, corn fritters and beans. I was hungry for it I have to say after being out all morning and it was yum. We then had a 2 hour siesta (animals aren’t really about it the heat of the mid day). As we were getting ready to go for our afternoon game drive a herd of elephants came really close to camp munching on branches. It was amazing. They got so close! Then it was off into the western part of the park again for some more viewing. This time Sinka was on the hunt for some more lions. We didn’t find them but we did see plenty of animals. In particular, a whole range of aquatic birds and some of what Sinka called the ‘Ugly 5’- malibu storks, baboons and warthogs (hyenas and vultures make up the last 2). We asked if we could be by the river for sunset and Sinka got us there just in time. Then it was back to camp at 6.30pm. The next 3 day, 2 night group had arrived so they were 7 new people to get to know which was fun. Two of which we discovered had witnessed me running down the road towards the steam train 2 days previous. The exchange went a little like this, “oh yeah, you were that crazy girl in the black dress who ran to see the train”. Yeah, thanks for that! The singing and dancing had added justo tonight with the guides rising to the larger audience. How African men dance is just funny- they just seemed to be in a permanent squat position whilst jumping around! Bed at 9.30pm again, snuggling into our comfy mattress, pillow and duvet.

5th April and our last day on safari. Usual routine, 5.30am start. But this morning had the added excitement of Sinka announcing he had heard a kill in the night really close by our camp. It was a lion on a buffalo and it happened at 4.50am so Sinka was sure the lions were still in the area. So we jumped in the 4×4 and Sinka carreered off-road at speed into the bush. It was all very exciting! He then got radioed by one of the Kalahari team he had located the lions and Sinka literally stormed it to the road. We were going so fast I just held on for dear life as we hurtled around the corner. But we were first on the scene and saw 10 lions (9 females and 1 male) in a stand-off with a bachelor herd of buffalo. The buffalo won and the lions went under a tree for a sulk! We were the last 2 out of the 10 originals on the tour and for the remaining of the morning drive we got our own personal safari; just us and Sinka which was rather special. We were zebra hunting which saw us travel to the Ngoma Gate on the Eastern side of the park. No sightings for us, but it was a long shot anyway as it was wet season still and zebra migrate out of the park. But we were still pleased to see the eastern side as it was so different from the west-drier, quieter, more savanna like. Aside from a lot of birds we also saw the carcass of a big elephant. Sinka said it died naturally and had probably been there for a week. Vultures were circling overhead. It was sad to see, but that’s the reality of the natural world. Back at camp again and we enjoyed another brunch- its amazing how hungry you get from just sitting in a 4×4! No siesta for us though. We were off with Sinka again and heading back to the Sedudu Gate via the Tide Road. We thought we were just going home but no Sinka surprised us with another river safari and dropped us off at the Chobe National Park water border. We hopped on a small speed boat with 6 other people and we were off. It was so nice to see the animals from the water again and in a small enough boat this time to get really close to shore. We saw velvet monkeys, plus a massive crocodile out of the water with its mouth open. The guide was 100 x’s more informative than the first boat trip and told us all about the dispute between Namiba and Botswana over the island that stretches along the middle of the Chobe River- the natural boundary between the two countries. It went to the Hague and based on the depth of water the island was pronounced as belonging to Botswana. There is a big Botswana flag on the stretch of land now just to remind everyone! We were on the water for 2 hours and then it was back to base to catch our transfer to the border. Got our exit stamp from Botswana, power boat over to Zambia again, entry stamp and then the guy from Jollyboys was there waiting to take us back to Livingstone. Fair play, the whole operation was very slick! We were entertained for the 1 1/2 hour journey back by a pair of 18-year-old twins from Ireland who were staying at a nearby backpackers called Fawlty Towers. They were funny little things, really chatty and friendly, and they called Hedd ‘old’ and then quickly qualified him as ‘older’ to make it sound better. I was laughing my head off but soon shut up when I realised I was only 2 years behind him! Experiencing 3 days of warm beverage’s, we enjoyed a couple of ice-cold coca cola’s back at the hostel before turning in early doors. We were bushed, but what a great safari!

Zambia side Victoria Falls and Botswana in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Dry and warm, although cool evenings and mornings in the bush on safari
  • Food= Camp curries ala Mr Roy
  • Drink= A bit of delightful box wine by the campfire
  • Another crazy thing we’ve done to add to this trips list= Swimming at the edge of Vic Falls
  • Girl Guide camping flashback= Cooking marshmallows on sticks on the safari campfire
  • An unsung hero of the African safari=Quilea Birds- at dawn and dusk they swam in massive flocks from tree to tree creating a stunning aired display
  • The best free shower in the world= Walking across Vic Falls knife-edge bridge in the wet season!

Hedd’s words of wisdom:

My first ever safari!! What an experience, it was amazing – the game drive we did in South Africa was nothing compared to this! Let’s start with the elephants. Chobe is all about elephants, they have around 120,000 of them. These creatures are massive and so interesting to watch. They are also extremely protective of their young, every time we stopped to take a picture of a baby elephant, one or two adults would move in front to protect them. Not so surprising perhaps given that there are lions in the park. On our first day we saw a confrontation between a pride of lions and some elephants, with the highlight being an elephant charging at the lions before running away to join the others. Simply amazing!! We also got to see hippos, crocs, buffalo, impala, kudu, baboons, lizards and more…so much wildlife, such a beautiful setting. To top it all off, we were camping. Yes, camping – in tents. The only thing that separated us from the lions, elephants and all the rest was a few paraffin lamps scattered among the grass. I was a bit worried at first, what if I get eaten by a lion, trampled by an elephant in my sleep etc. Some of the others in the group heard a lot of noise at night, said there was something outside the tent etc. I must have slept well both nights, because I didn’t hear a thing!! This was a proper safari and it was amazing!

Back in Chile and a Hop Over into Boliva- San Pedro de Atacama and the Salar de Uyuni

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Salar de Uyuni- a mirror on the world.

So after over 24 hours on the go, starting with a bus from Ariquipa to Tacna (Peru), then a taxi collective over the border to Arica (Chile), then an overnight bus from Arica, we finally arrived in San Pedro de Atacama at 10am on Monday. The journey, although long, was bearable. Although we did have to get off the bus with all our bags to pass through a regional checkpoint once we got into Chile at 4am! I swear Chile is more fussed about travel within their country than across their borders, quite ridiculous! So San Pedro is a small travellers town, full of people in their 20´s, found either in the main square watching the world go by or on bikes peddling along San Ped´s dusty dirt roads. The town is within the Atacama desert, the most arid desert in the world, and the sun is strong, the air dry and the sky a perfect powdery blue. Most buildings are single storey and called ´adobe´ houses with interior yards and roofs made of clay and hay. Everything is either white or an earthy reddy-brown colour; against the bright blue sky, is a pleasure on the eyes. First night in San Pedro we stayed at Hostel Campo Base, which was a comfortable hostel with a lovely cleaner-come-cook-come-tourist-information-point called Marie who made amazing scrabbled eggs! We also found a great restaurant called ? on the plaza, where you can sit and people watch and which serves great comfort food in massive portion…very welcome after 24 hours travelling and 2 days of little eating after being poorly!

Tuesday marked the start of our 4 day, 3 night tour into Bolivia through Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa and to Salar de Uyuni. Our tour company (Cordillera Traveller) picked us up from our hostel at 8am and took us through Chilean immigration which was 10 minutes out of town…yet another Chile exit stamp in my passport! It was then another 30 minutes to the Bolivian immigration point, in the middle of nowhere- desert all around with 1 stone building with ´Immigration Boliva´painted on the side! Needless to say the border crossing was easy, 1 form to fill in and 1 stamp in the passport. Then it was time to transfer our bags and ourselves from the mini bus into the 4×4´s which would be taking us through the reserve and salt plain over the next 3 days. We were a group of 11 so they split us up into 2 4×4´s. In our 4×4 we had Catalina and Fred from Portugal and are Ryan Air air stewards, and Rachel and Acil from Perth. Rachel we found was originally from Wales, moving over to Perth when she was 12. But she had Cymru tattooed on her wrist so I think she is still a die-hard Welshy! Our driver was called Celso and spoke no English, so Fred was appointed official translator and tour guide sitting in the front with Celso and asking our various questions about the landscape we were travelling through. He was a complete star the whole 3 days.

So the landscape in the Reserve is barren desert, but not in an ugly way. Like San Ped´everywhere was a reddy-brown earthy colour, with naturally coloured mountains of green, orange and red smudges and bright reflective lakes throughout. First stop on our tour of the Reserve was Laguna Blanco. As the name suggests it was a white lake, the bolsite mineral in the water making the water look white. It was so reflective that it acted like a mirror to the sky and the flamingo´s that resided there. Then it was back on the 4×4 to the next lake called Laguna Verde. This lake was a gorgeous aquamarine colour which looked extremely vivid against the sand colour of the mountains that surround it. The turquoise colour comes from the copper and sulphur minerals in the water. On the way to the hot springs, our driver pointed out an area of rock formations which had inspired a lot of the surrealist Salvador Dali´s paintings. There are 2 rocks standing tall which are called ´the twins´, and apparently Dali saw himself as their brother…odd if you ask me, but he was a surrealist after all! The hot springs, called Termas de Polques, were sulfurous water pools at 4200 meters, naturally hot at 30 degrees. We couldn´t spend too long in them (20 mins) as at altitude just sitting in the pools wipe you out. Although feeling exhausted afterwards, it was lovely sitting in them and chatting to the others on our tour. There was just one more stop before lunch which was at the Sol de Manana Geysers at 4950 meters- the highest point of the tour. These were boiling mud pots and sulfurous fumaroles which let off plumes of gas which smelt like rotten eggs! We had to be careful around them as the ground can be unstable and our driver told us a true horror story of a tourist who fell in and got burnt from head to toe and they had to send for a helicopter from La Paz, but that took 3 hours….needless to say we were careful! Our stop for lunch was the last stop for day 1, at our hostel for that night in the middle of nowhere! Our group of 11 spent the afternoon and evening playing cards. Food was pretty basic but not inedible. And after dinner we went outside to star gaze. One word, wow! The sky was packed full of stars, like a dome of stars surrounding you as you looked up. We saw the milky way too, it looks like a patch of cloud in the sky of otherwise canvas of sharp glints of light (the stars).

So day 2 began with a false start. Acil´s alarm went off and diligently we all got up and got ready for the day. 20 minutes later we realised it was actually 5 o´clock and not 7 o´clock when we needed to be up. So we all went back to bed in our clothes for 2 hours! Acil got confused with the Bolivian time difference (1 hour behind Chile time), bless her! Anyway when we then got up, it was a quick breakfast and back onto the 4×4´s to explore further the Reserve. First stop was to Laguna Colorado which got nominated for 1 of the new 7 wonders of the world. It didn´t get onto the final list, but it is easy to see why it made the shortlist. The lake is massive and a pinky-red colour due to the minerals in the water. It’s just 30 cm´s deep and reflects everything, and is full of flamingo´s. 1 million flamingo´s across the whole of the reserve, with the majority living in Laguna Colorado. We saw all 3 varieties of flamingos- the Flamenco Andino (with black tails), Flamenco Chileno (more white) and the rarer Flamenco de James (more pink). It was really cool seeing them in flight. They look super funny when they land; like they are landing on hot coals, their feet move up and down and you can imagine they are squawking “ooh, ahh, ouchh”! Next stop was at the Arbol de Piedra, which is a rock which has been eroded by the wind and now looks like a tree. It really did look like a tree, fair play, and was the nearest thing to vegetation in an otherwise arid landscape, even if it is rock! We then travelled across the Altiplanic (a platform at altitude) stopping off at the 3 altiplanic lakes called Canapa, Hedionda and Honda. They were much the same, but not as impressive as Laguna Colorado. After lunch (where I tried to pretended the grit in my pasta was pepper- inevitable hazard in a desert!), we stopped off at a view-point to see the Abaroa volcano. It is still active and had a small plume of gas coming off it which was a bit ominous. So we were quick to get back on the 4×4 to make our way to the edge of the Salar de Uyuni. This wasn´t before stopping within a mini salt plain, with a random set of train tracks running through it (I have no idea where it led or came from), and Fred taking a turn at driving the 4×4 (we stopped just before San Juan town so Celso, our actual driver, wouldn´t get in trouble)! That night we stayed at Hotel de Sal on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni. The whole building is made from salt blocks, including all furniture inside, and complete with a loose salt floor. It was pretty impressive, although the loose salt floor a little impracticable!

Day 3 of the tour and also Catalina´s 23rd birthday and we had cake for breakfast! Fred also, rather resourcefully, fashioned up 2 candles from a cork which was very sweet. We were off by 7am and right into the Salar de Uyuni. The Salar is the world´s largest salt flat covering over 12,00 square meters and rests at 3653 meters high. It was part of a prehistoric salt lake called Lago Minchin which covered most of South West Bolivia, and was fed by Lake Titicaca in its day, but which has now dried up. And this has created a massive white salt surface i.e. Salar de Uyuni! Now this is meant to be one of the dryest places in the world, but lo and behold it rained over night creating a shallow film of water over the salt plain. This only meant that the salt plain was even more reflective. You couldn´t see where the salt plain finished and the sky began and in the morning sun it looked even more spectacular. The place was horizonless. I can only imagine this is what people in the olden days felt when they set sail, thinking the world was flat. You really felt that any moment the 4×4 would just fall off the end of the plain! We all had fun creating novelty photographs on the plain as a group. Jumping, creating the evolution model all of us in a line and playing around with perspective so it looks like you were standing on people’s heads or sitting on people’s hands. It was good fun! As we continued to drive across the salt plain, we kept seeing graves marked with a cross. Our driver said that these marked places where people had lost their lives on the plain. For example, quite recently 2 american tourists who hired their own car to drive across the plain, got lost, decided to sleep in their car and died of exposure…nasty! Near the centre of the plain, it began to dry up as the sun had evaporated all the rain from the night before. The ground looked like icy snow and crunched slightly when you walked on it. We then stopped at the Museo de Sal which used to be the first salt hotel on the Salar called Hotel Playa Blanca. However it got closed down as its sewerage polluted the salt pan. Consequently the authorities banned the building of hotels in the middle of the Salar, and instead they are only allowed to build around the edges. Right outside of the hotel/museum was a mound of salt, upon which lots of flags from around the world were flying. The multi-colour of the flags against the blue sky and white plain looked out of this world. Very cool. Although the Union Jack looked like it had seen better days! Next stop on the Salar was to what they call the salt eyes, where water underneath the salt plain bubbles up creating little volcanoes of water. Right next door to this was a salt mine, where we saw a man with a shovel who´s job it is to scoop up the salt into piles which then get collected to be processed for table salt. Fred got talking to him and found out that he works 16 hour days in the same 5 meter by 5 meter area of the plain! When asked whether he enjoyed working mining salt, he answered “he has to eat”. We then left the plain and had lunch at the salt town called Colchani. Then it was off to Uyuni town, the last stop on our tour. They took us to the outskirts of the town to a place they call the train cemetery. It is the place where all the coal powered trans were taken to be dumped when they were no longer needed after the Pacific War and then again when electric trains were introduced. It was quite an unreal sight seeing lots of different trains, carriages and engines just sitting there in the middle of nowhere. However many of them had a lot of graffiti on them which made the place look even more neglected and the surrounding area was dotted with garbage which wasn´t very nice. So all in all we were pleased to get back to the main square of Uyuni (although the town itself is a bit neglected too!) for our debrief and good byes with the guys and gals in our group. It was just Hedd and I and a swiss lady called Astrid which was making the trip back to San Pedro, the rest of the group was heading further into Bolivia. So after 1/2 hour it was back into a different 4×4 with our new driver Ronald to head back to Chile. After 4 hours of travelling we arrived in a small town called Villa Mar where we were having an overnight stop over. By 8.30pm we were in bed to prepare for our 4am wake up to continue the journey to Chile. We went to bed with the stars and woke up with them. Sun rise was around 5.30am and only then did it start to warm up. It was a pretty chilly trip up till then! We got to the Bolivian border by 9.30am, got another stamp in our passports, said bye to Ronald our 4×4 driver and then onto a minibus to take us the rest of the way. Crossing the Chilean entry border was laborious but fine and we finally arrived in San Pedro at 1 pm. A long day and it wasn´t even past lunch time! But it was an ace tour and we chilled for the rest of the day looking over our pictures from the trip.

Our remaining time in San Pedro has been a very relaxed affair. Sleeping in, strolling around the dusty streets and lazing about in the plaza. We had booked to go on what they call a ´star tour´last night, where you got taken into the desert and shown the nights sky plus a trip to an observatory. However it got canceled at last minute due to over 50% cloud cover! Very bad luck seeing as most world class observatories are based in the Atacama desert due to its reliability of over 300 days clear skies a year! ´C’est la vie´ as they say. In conciliation, Hedd downloaded a Solar System Advent Calendar App on his ipod and I got to open 17 doors at once whilst listening to some Christmas tunes…I got up to the planet Saturn! So today we are off on a 23 hour bus journey South to a place called Vina del Mar, just north of Santiago. I feel like I´m on the wind down now after our gallop around South America. We´ve packed heck of a lot in and still 2 more places to see. But just 6 more days until we fly to Fiji…that´ll be a big change!

San Pedro de Atacama and Salar de Uyuni in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Fierce sun in the day but blooming cold at night!
  • Food= Basic but edible on the tour; big portions and hearty (Algarrobo restaurant) or yummy breakfast pancakes (Salon de Te) in San Ped´
  • Drink= Water, water and more water (the air is really dry here)
  • Salt plain tour highlight= Gazing at the endless horizon on the wet surface of Salar de Uyuni

Hedd´s word´s of wisdom:

When I decided a long time ago now that we should do the Salt Plains tour into Bolivia, I did so on the basis that we would be visiting one of the driest places on earth, it was even described alien environment. So on the 3rd day of our tour I was quite disappointed to be informed that there had been a lot of rain and that we would be unable to visit certain parts of the “Salar”. However my disappointment soon vanished as we drove into the Salar”, which covered in water, looked like an endless lake on one side and and like I would imagine the North Pole on the other side. When we stopped it was  surreal, the water reflected the sky perfectly to the point where it was hard to tell where the sky ended and the earth began. Magical. We were then informed that the tours would have to stop in a few days because the water would be too deep. So instead of feeling disappointed, I now feel lucky to have experienced something only a few people a year will get to see.

Peru: A Country of Colour- Ariquipa and Cusco

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Our 3rd country visited, and my favourite so far…

So first up, the Chile- Peru border. It was very efficient actually for what is a bit of a bitty journey. First from Arica we took what they call a ´taxi collective´ to Tacna, i.e. a 5 person car which has to be filled before it heads off across the border. Bus´s can´t cross the border Chile to Peru so that’s why you need to catch a taxi. You get them from the international terminal right next door to the bus terminal in Arica. So in ours we had 3 locals and all the drivers know exactly what to do so we felt quite looked after. So after 20 minutes travelling we arrived at the first immigration point and got our passports stamped out of Chile. Then it was back in the taxi for 2 minutes before getting out again to get stamped into Peru (I still wonder who that strip of land in-between belongs too!). And also to have our bags scanned. Then back in the taxi again for 40 mins or so until we arrived in the first city across the border in Peru called Tacna. In Tacna, its similar to Arica- the bus terminal is just next door to where you get dropped off across a small road. We had already bought our onward bus ticket which we had in our hands leaving the taxi and soon got swept up from a rep from the bus company who took us to a waited room and then onto the bus. The bus company we went with was called Transportes Ariquipa…not 1 of the companies recommended for travellers we later discovered and we can vouch for that! It was an incredibly uncomfortable 6 1/2 hour journey with no air con and stopping in very random places to pick up very random looking people! But it was an experience and we got to our final destination, Ariquipa, in one piece so no harm done! There´s quite dodgy taxi´s in Ariquipa and there´s lots of signs in the bus terminal to get a taxi from those inside the terminal not on the street so we took heed to the advice and caught a 5 sol taxi to our hostel- La Casa de los Pinguinos. Phew what a day!

I have nothing but good things to say about La Casa de los Pinguinos, and the owner, from Amsterdam originally, called Alex can´t do enough for you. Plus she used to live in Princetown for 3 years (right near where I grew up in Plymouth) so we reminisced about the various night spots (Union street!) and tors on Dartmoor which was a nice bit of familiarity. Ariquipa has a lovely feel to it. The main plaza is surrounded by colonial building with cover walk ways, on one side a massive Cathedral and in the middle gardens and a fountain. It wouldn´t have looked out-of-place in a European Capital City. That evening after the border crossing we pretty much found food and hit the sack. However Peru is 2 hours behind Chile which I really discovered the next morning when I was wide awake at 6am- my body thinking it was 8am. To my delight (Hedd´s horror!) I found the film Ratatouille on the Disney channel and watched that until it was a more godly hour! That Saturday was filled with seeing the sights of the city. First stop, Museo Santuarios Andinos (15 soles entry). The museum is all about the Inca children sacrifices that were made on the highest mountain surrounding Ariquipa called Ampato.  It started out with a 20 mins National Geographic film about the discovery of the graves on top of the mountain (by accident by a group of geologists!) and then a guided tour of the exhibitions  and ended with seeing the actual frozen body of one of the 4 children they found on Ampato. So the story goes that the Inca´s 500 years ago saw the mountains as their gods. And whenever there was a natural disaster or volcanic eruption the Inca people took the 3 to 4 month journey by foot from Cusco to Mount Ampata to make a child sacrifice to the gods so to appease their anger and didn´t bring natural disasters to the area again. The children were chosen at birth and were all sacrificed by the time they were 16. There is a really famous one called the íce maiden´which when found was perfectly preserved due to the low temperatures at the top of the mountain, only a lot smaller as she had shrunk over the 500 years 6288 meters up. Kind of freaky looking! We then took a taxi (5 soles) up to Mirador de Yanahuara to get a great view of Mount Mismi- the active volcano that Ariquipa wraps itself around. And then strolled back down to the main Plaza, stopping off for lunch at a traditional Peruvian restaurant called Sol de Mayo where you sit in a lovely garden and eat whilst listening to a live band playing Peruvian folk tunes. Very lovely and not super expensive either. We had the infamous Recodo Rellero- a hot pepper stuffed with meat and topped with cheese. We stopped short of trying the other infamous dish- roasted guinea pig! After a siesta we headed back out to the Plaza to check out the big cathedral (open 7am-11am and 17.00-19.30). Although it occupies one whole side of the square, its surprising small inside but it was worth a peek in. And then it was an early night in prep for the early rise the next day to start our tour of Canon del Colca.

So Canon del Colca. It’s still within the Ariquipa district but around a 3 hour drive from Ariquipa city and much higher so its worth if you have time, to take the tour over 2 or more days so you can acclimatize to the altitude. We went on a 2 day 1 night tour, starting off at 7.30am from our hostel. Our tour guide was called Nancy and we were a small group of 12 so didn´t feel so touristy and impersonal. So it was a 3 hour drive to Chivay which was our overnight stop but the drive was separated out with stops at nice view points and to see the Vicona´s (long-necked lamas), Lama´s and Alpacas…all extremely cute looking, especially the babies. At most of the stops there were ladies dressed up in the colourful traditional costume selling all sorts of souvenirs (clothing made from alpaca wool, bright patterned fabrics, figurines) but they looked so so fantastic.  They wear highly embroided skirts and waistcoats, with silk blouses underneath and  colourful shawls over the top. And all topped off with a great hat. Peruvian ladies know how to wear their hats…i´m quite jealous! There is a story about these hats too. There are 2 different types. 1- flat-topped and wide and highly embroided, and the second a white taller hat with sequins on it. They represent the 2 different ethnic groups from the Inca times 500 years ago and the hats back in the day were a way of discretely saying which group the lady belonged too after the Spanish had invaded and conquered the Incas and band most of their traditions. History or not, both hats are stunning. After lunch and a siesta (getting used to these afternoon naps now!) we got picked up from our hostel in Chivay and headed to the near by natural hot springs. It cost 15 soles to get in but it was well worth it. The pools are in the open air with mountains as their backdrop. The one we were in was 38 degrees with natural minerals in it and so so relaxing. It is recommended you only stay in the pools for a maximum of 40 minutes because of the effect of the minerals, heat and altitude. And its was true that when we came out we felt content but completely wiped out! So it was back to the hostel for a shower and an early dinner.

The next day we had our wake up call of a bang on the door at 5am, for breakfast at 5.30 and back on the mini bus for 6am….one word, ouch! The reason for the crazy early start was to get to the Cruz del Condor viewpoint within Colca Canyon for around 9am when it was more likely to see Condors. On the way to the Canyon we passed through Colca Valley and stopped off at various valley towns on the way. This included Yanque where at 6.30am there were Peruvian dancers in traditional costume in the square dancing round and round to remarkably loud music which left us quite stunned and we took sanctuary in the church. The Peruvian´s love gold leaf in their churches, and the backdrop of the alters are floor to ceiling gold leaf in most of the churches I´ve been in…very elaborate. Then it was onto Achoma, and then onto Maca which is apparently sliding gradually into the river due to tectonic plate activity underneath it…bad times. All through the drive we got a great view of the Inca terraces- the tiered agricultural system following the contours of the mountains. They made them by removing the soil, then putting a layer of rock, then small stones, then sand, then soil with irrigation channels weaving throughout the tiers. It’s a really impressive sight to see. The Inca´s were the engineers of their time and they carved terrace prototypes in stone before starting on the mountain for real. These prototypes are still dotted around the valley today and if you pour water in the pool at the top then the water will run down the carved prototype as it does on the actual terraces which are still being farmed today. Very clever and very cool! So we got to the Canyon at around 9.30am and went on a bit of a trek to the viewing platforms instead of driving so we could get a better look at the Canyon. Colca Canyon is the deepest canyon in the world…even deeper than the Gran Canyon in the states. But instead of a U shape at the bottom like the Gran Canyon its in the shape of a V. Around 60 condors live in the canyon but we only saw 4 during our 60 minutes at Cruz del Condor. We didn´t see many because it is the start of the rainy season and condors don´t fly, they glide using the thermal currents. In the rainy season the thermal currents aren´t so prevalent as it’s not so hot, therefore not as many condors. But we got to see 4 so not so bad. And then it was onto Chivay again for lunch before making the 3 hour drive back to Ariquipa city. The roads are incredibly windy but I still managed to sleep even if Hedd and I bashed heads a couple of times from the bends!

Although we´d already been up 12 hours by the time we got back to Ariqupa that Monday, our day wasn´t over! That night we caught the overnight bus to Cusco. This time going with a recommended bus company called Cruz del Sur! And it was a much more pleasant journey, with yet another Jennifer Anniston rom com movie for entertainment, this one called ´Rumour´. The bus journey took 10 hours and we arrived into Cusco at 7.30am and after a 4 sole taxi, we got to our hostel in time to catch free breakfast. Our hostel is called Ecopackers and is just 2 blocks from the main square- Plaza de Armas. Amazing location. The hostel is the biggest we´ve stayed in and has 18 person dorms! Must be a nightmare trying to get to sleep in those! They also have a Christmas tree with fairy lights up in the foyer which has  made me very happy over our 3 days here! Cusco is a great city, has lots of pretty squares with restaurants with balconies overlooking them. Lots of places to just sit and chill and watch the world go by. Our 3 days here in Cusco have really been to get acclimatised for our Inca trek and buy any last-minute bits for it. For me this was socks! Gotta look after your feet when walking, first rule of D of E! But yesterday we did go on a free walking tour of Cusco which runs each day from Ecopackers at 11.30am. Its well worth the 3 hours, and the guide (sense of humour comes free also!) takes you to the old town, the tourist centre and the bohemian part of the city. As well as into the Chocolate Museum (where we got a free chocolate tea- looks like tea, tastes like hot chocolate), stopping for a free frapichino at Cusco Coffee Bar and ending at a really cool bar called Fallen Angel. Everywhere you go you get a 10% off voucher so you can go back on the cheap later on. It was during the tour I had my first peculiar altitude sickness moment where I almost fainted but don´t worry after a bit of water and a sit down I was fine. The guide also showed us the hotel where Mick Jagger and his family had stayed 4 weeks ago to see the city and go up Machu Pichu. Apparently he bought all the Machu Pichu tickets for the morning he went up so him and his family could be the only ones in the national park for sun rise! Must have been amazing but he´s a bit of a sod because that meant that the everyone who was on the Inca Trek couldn´t get in for sun rise there wasn´t any permits left! I would have been so annoyed! Thankfully Mick Jagger and anyone else famous have now left Cusco so fingers crossed our permits will still be valid for our sun rise ascent into Machu Pichu on M0nday!

So we´re off on our trek tomorrow morning, being picked up between 5 and 5.30am so another ridiculously early start but it will be well worth it. I am so excited! We´ve got a pre-briefing with our lead porter this evening where we get to meet the rest of our group. There are 9 of us, all english speaking either from UK, US or Australia, so i´m sure there will be some good banter over the 4 days. I´ll let you know how we get on…Machu Pichu here I come!

(Sorry guys…major issues with uploading some pics to accompany the post. Will give you a bumper picture edition when I´m back off the Inca Trek!)

Ariquipa in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Hot but really cold at night
  • Food= Alpaca steaks (looks like lamb but tastes like bacon!)
  • Drink= Inca Kola (the locals fizzy drink of choice- it is bright yellow, tastes like bubble gum and you fear what it does to your insides…we only had 1 bottle!)
  • Number of Bride and Groom´s seen in 1 day= 5! (The churches acted like a conveyor belt with one wedding party entering the church as one is just leaving! The latest ceremony we saw was at 8.30pm! Great fun looking at all the dresses…didn´t care for them much though- either too shiny or too many pleats!)
  • Top tip= Don´t eat in buffet restaurants on the Colco Canyon tour…they leave the food out too long and travellers get poorly. Instead head for a local restaurant which sells meals of the day (soup, drink, meat with rice) for around 5 soles. Best to go with someone who speaks spanish though as there is no menu and the restaurant owners don´t speak any engligh (thanks Ana from Belgium…our translator for the day!)

Cusco in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Hot (really strong sun…where a hat!) but short sharp showers/ thunderstorms in the afternoon or evenings
  • Food= Afternoon cake at the lovely Chocolate Museum.
  • Drink= Pisco Sour (pisco alcohol, sours and egg whites)- yum!
  • Seen so many I´ve lost count= Vintage VW Beetles in all the different colours of a smarties packet!
  • Well worth the 3 hours= Free walking tour of Cusco ( every place you visit you get a 10% off voucher which you can use at a later time, including the chocolate museum)
  • Big smile moment= Receiving a phone call from Mum and Dad for the first time and hearing I got awarded a distinction for my Masters- woop!

Hedd´s words of wisdom:

I´ve really enjoyed Peru to date, especially after the desert that was Northern Chile. However, I am starting to grow very wary of all the touts that constantly harass you around the main squares to enter their establishments. To date, the most common words I´ve hear since being in Cusco are:

“Massage, no, maybe later?”

“Information, Machu Picchu”

“Restaurant, Tourist Menu”

So come to Peru, enjoy Arequipa, enjoy Cusco but be prepared for the hassle. I try to tell myself that they are only trying to make a living, and that´s fine, but it doesn´t make it any less annoying!!

Chile’s Northern Regions- La Serena and Arica

Standard

…a whole lot of arid!

So the night bus from Mendoza to La Serena…by the time they switched the bus lights on at 6.30am in the morning I felt like someone had hit me in the face! It was not a comfortable journey to say the least, but we got across the border into Chile simply enough. The Argentinean customs and Chilean customs literally sit next to each other at the border office and after you’ve filled in a couple of forms, you que up one side to get stamped out of Argentina and then que up right next door to get stamped into Chile.  Bags get scanned and then your through. We got into La Serena 2 hours early but the hostel was open so we dumped our bags and chilled until our room was ready. We stayed at Hostal el Punto which had a more B & B feel to it than a hostel and lots of German retired couples staying in it which was quite random. But it was pleasant enough with lovely sunny courtyard areas and a good breakfast.

That afternoon we ventured out to explore the city. Downtown is quite pretty with colonial style buildings and its right by the sea. However the beach was quite unpleasant with lots of rubbish in the sand and unfinished beach side developments along the front. There was a cool lighthouse there though so we took a look around that and headed back into town. Really La Serena is just a base to explore the Elqui Valley inland towards the Andes, which we did on day 2 of our time there. We went with the straight forward named tour company- Elqui Valley Tours (!)- and our tour guide for the day called Hector was really good fun and knew everything. A real brain for facts and figures and he would pop quiz us through out the day to make sure we were listening and taking the info in! So lets see how much I remember….

So Elqui Valley. The word ‘Elqui’ means ‘Sound of the Andes’ and its a grape growing region harvesting grapes for eating, and making into wine and the national drink called Pisco. What you notice as you drive there is that this valley is really thin and the farms spread outwards from the small rivers that flow through the valley. The farmers also farm upwards terracing the valley sides to grow more vines or avocados which apparently have deeper stronger roots. And then above the green fields of produce the mountains are just arid, nothing on them apart from a few cactus’. Hopefully the picture above shows a bit of what I’m talking about there. Hector drove us through the valley and made stops at the Puclaro Dam and the capital city of the valley called Vicuna and told us about the history along the way. Everywhere you go you see references to a lady called Gabriela Mistral who was born and raised in the area and won a Nobel Prize for Literature . There are streets, plaza’s, shops, schools etc all named after her. She is evidently well-loved but she did give all her royalties from her poems to the children of the Elqui Valley so you can kind of see why they love her!

We then stopped off at a small Pisco distillery called ABA which has been making the drink since 1921. Although arguably it was the Peruvians who made the drink first, it is the Argentinians who call it their national drink (there was a Peruvian lady on the tour and her and Hector had a tongue and check spat about this as we drove along in Spanish…quite funny to observe!). Pisco starts its life as a wine but then is distilled into a high alcohol content liquor. The locals drink it neat with ice or make Pisco Sours with egg, lemon and ice (which personally sounds a bit gross!). We tried 4 types of Pisco. 1 that had been aged in an oak barrel and tasted like cognac/brandy. The second was ‘alcohol for pisco’ which was 67.5% and illegal to be sold in Chile…needless to say I coughed after tasting that one! And then a couple mixed with mango etc which were much more drinkable! The highlight of the day for me though was our lunch stop at a solar restaurant at a hill-side village called Villaseca. All the food is cooked in solar ovens in the solar kitchen outside. The ovens are orientated towards the sun and the rays are reflected using silver panels onto essentially wooden boxes with glass tops with the food inside which then cooks. I’ve included some pics so you can see what I’m talking about.There was also a hob/grill which used essentially a flattened out concave disco ball underneath it to reflect the sun rays up onto the rack. A kettle on top of that takes 12 minutes to boil so 2 to 3 times longer than conventional cooking but very very cool. Hector rang our orders through earlier in the day so the lunch was ready for when we arrived…we didn’t have to wait 3 hours or anything! I don’t know if it’s just the human geographer in me but the story behind this solar restaurant I found really affirming. So the story goes…the villagers of Villaseca are all quite poor and when they ran out of gas, or couldn’t afford gas in the first place, to cook  they used to go up into the mountains and cut down the small trees and shrubs to burn. This accelerated desertification of the slopes, made the slopes more unstable, bad stuff etc etc. So a group of students from the Chile Uni’s put a bid into the government to introduce solar ovens and solar kitchens into the village so the families could still cook for free without cutting down the trees. So now all the village homes have solar kitchens. Although the mountains still look pretty deserty to me! The restaurant we ate in is ran as a cooperative. All the ladies from the village work there in groups which rotate weekly. They all get paid the same (small) salary but get an equal share of the profits twice a year- once before Christmas in December and the second time in March before the children go back to school. A really simple, clever idea which seems to be working well for the village and the community and the food was really tasty too!

Our last day in La Serena was Tuesday and we took a walk around 5 of the whopping 29 churches across the city. Not many of them are used regularly for worship anymore but they are still nice looking buildings. The city was known as the ‘City of Bells’ as every hour on the hour all 29 churches used to ring their bells…must have been so loud! 10 years ago the local municipal government put a stop to this on the back of the many complaints from the locals that it was disrupting their sleep…I can see their point of view! We visited Iglesia Catedral, Iglesia Santo Domingo, Iglesia San Francisco, Iglesia San Agustin and Iglesia la Merced which are all open during the day and you can come and go quite freely. We also checked out the main 2 museums in the town. Museo Arqueologico de La Serena and Museo Historico Gabriel Gonzalez Videla. It cost 600 pesos to get into Arqueologico one but then you got into the Historico one for free which was good. The highlight of the two is the Easter Island exhibit in Museo Arqueologico which had a 3 meter tall Moai- the carved stone faces that Easter Island is famous for. It was really very cool and made me completely want to go and visit Easter Island. We looked into it but it is super expensive so we’re going to take a detour to Vina del Mar on the way back down to Sanitago which has a whole Easter Island Museum so we can learn a bit more about it then. I know I’m a geek! Our visit to the Museo Arqueologico got disrupted half way through by a loud siren like the ones used in the World War’s to raise the alarm of a bombing raid.  We got evacuated from the museum and pieced together from the ticket man’s spanish that this was a mock simulation of a tsunamis evacuation and the procedure was to head away from the coast until you are above the road called Balmaceda! In the end we just followed the stream of locals up the street to a little park which must have been a designated congregation point and waited there for 20 minutes. There were loads of people in hard hats and high vis’ jackets and TV crews and helicopters flying overhead and fire service and ambulances driving around. It was really quite exciting! But I don’t think people would have been so jovial in a real life tsunamis evacuation! I later found out that Chile gets a little earthquake weekly as it sits on a massive fault line and the La Serena area gets a big earthquake once every 10 years. The last big one was in 1997 so its 4 years over due…was kind of pleased that we were heading further north that evening!

So our longest bus journey yet was our overnight bus from La Serena to Arica. A massive 23 hours! It was comfortable enough, but we were completely unprepared. Bus’s in Argentina give you food but bus’ in Chile do not we discovered. So we rationed our packet of Pringle’s and half a bar of chocolate for dinner, breakfast and lunch! The landscape for the 23 hours was just desert, arid moon like landscape. Quite boring really! Until an hour before Arica when we were essentially driving on the edge of a canyon which was cool if a little scary! We arrived in Arica 4 pm on Wednesday and we’ve spent 2 nights here before heading up to Peru. Arica is a city and not a very pretty one! We’ve probably spent a night longer here than most travellers, and perhaps more than is necessary, as it is essentially a transition point to get the taxi across the border into Peru. But we’ve appreciated the break in the overnight buses and the hostel we have been staying at (Sunny Days Hostel)  is run by a kiwi called Ross who is lovely and has lots of places to flop, play cards and recuperate.

So off to Peru tomorrow at 10am and I really can’t wait. 7 days until we start the Inca Trek up to Machu Pichu- WOOP!

La Serena in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Hot and clear blue skies (they have 311 days and nights of clear skies a year apparently and that’s why there are plenty of observatories in Elqui Valley to star gaze)
  • Drink= Vino blanco that we bought on our bike and wine day in Mendoza
  • Food= Hostel homemade hamburgers (German run hostel!)
  • Must try whilst in the area= Pisco!

Arica in a (very brief!) snapshot:

  • Weather= Cloudy and warm in the mornings, clear, hot but really windy in the afternoons
  • Drink= Mango Pisco we bought in the Elqui Valley (yum!)
  • Food= Vegetable stir fry (a great fruit and veg market across the street from our hostel plus we need the vitamins!)
  • Smelliest place so far= In the Fisherman’s wharf where the sea lions and pelicans hang out (poo-ey!)

Hedd’s words of wisdom:

So, forget what I said in an earlier blog about getting by with only a few words of Spanish. Everyone who’s thinking of coming to South America should learn more of the local lingo than we did. Sure, I can buy things, order bus tickets and I can ask questions…but I don’t have a clue what the answer is. Not being able to understand the local lingo can also make border crossings a bit daunting. Luckily the one from Argentina to Chile wasn’t too bad, bus stopped at midnight, get out, passport stamped out of Argentina, into Chile, no questions, no problems. However on the 23 hour bus journey to Arica, the ‘bus guy’ collected our passports for some reason which made me feel very uneasy, as I don’t like it leaving my sight. I tried to ask in my best Spanish…”why take passport”, but of course I had no idea what the answer was and he spoke no English…fortunately after an hour of so we passed a checkpoint and our passports were returned to us!! Now, lets see how the Chile-Peru border crossing goes tomorrow, fingers crossed for someone who can ”ablo ingles”!!